Hold These Truths by Jeanne Sakata is a one-man play about Gordon Hirabayashi (1918–2012), a Japanese American Quaker who refused internment during World War II. When the American government began imposing curfews on Japanese Americans, and later interning them in ghettos, Gordon Hirabayashi refused internment. He was arrested and charged with violating exclusion and curfew orders. He went to jail for several years and appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1987, a federal appeals court in San Francisco unanimously overturned his conviction. While fighting his battle, he worked on and off for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).
Hold These Truths is a play, not just about one man’s struggle to avoid internment, but the pervasive nature of racism—how it builds in America to terrifying and often violent consequences and how Gordon Hirabayashi fought against the degradation and dehumanization of his family and his race during World War II.
The production I saw began with Gordon (played by Makoto Hirano) traveling down the center aisle reciting the Declaration of Independence and lighting candles, which he places on the edge of the stage. After the candles have all been placed, he begins his story. Makoto plays several characters, showing us Gordon’s mother and father, his family’s farm, and his first days at the University of Washington. Gordon tells us about becoming Quaker, about studying with his peers, falling in love, and the curfew imposed on Japanese Americans. Through Gordon, we experience the challenge of the charge he has been given. Does he follow the curfew and go home before being prepared for class? Or does he stay at the library with his peers? Gordon chooses the latter, and so begins his stand against Executive Order 9066 and the internment of Japanese Americans in the Northwest.
In the play, after obeying curfew the first few times Gordon decides to stay out late at the library. The action causes a ripple effect, encouraging Gordon to listen to his own still, small voice. He says, “I just know I have to say no … [to have] the chance to say yes.” And over several years, Gordon says yes to many things. He participates actively in his trial, enlists help from AFSC in his defense, and visits with family and friends. When his sentence is laid out before him, he accepts it—but on his own terms. Gordon requested to serve his time in a work camp so that he could be outside. In order to do this, he paid his own way south to join the closest work camp near Tucson, Ariz. The theme of “evolution not revolution” is prevalent in Hold These Truths. Gordon’s story is eventually a happy one, but it takes many small steps over many years to get there. The theory of “evolution not revolution” is one that AFSC holds true as well.
As Shan Cretin, the general secretary of AFSC, explained during the special post-performance talkback on February 15, the process to peace and presence of justice is an evolving and continuous one. Peace isn’t built overnight, or by one choice. It happens in communities, over years of collaborative choice making. Peace is building in America and across the globe, but on the terms of each individual and each community. It doesn’t look the same everywhere; it doesn’t build in the same time. Gordon’s peace story spans decades and is about choice, commitment, citizenship, and justice for Japanese Americans during World War II.
As a Quaker watching this production, I thought the director, actor, and playwright each did an excellent job of telling Gordon’s story. The playwright laid out the facts and wove the story together in a compelling way without pointing blame. This was Gordon’s story, and these were Gordon’s choices. Quakers played an important part, but it was ultimately up to Gordon to follow through on his commitments and choices. Queries presented themselves for me: Do I recognize injustice in my community, in America, and in the world? How can I inform myself, better subject myself to true stories of peace and justice? How can I hold up the positive while also recognizing the negative?
The actor playing Gordon impressively plays 30 characters in Hold These Truths. From Gordon’s father to his mother to a jailer, Makoto Hirano gave each character a distinctive voice—not necessarily in a literal sense, but in the use of gestures, props, and costume additions. Makoto’s transitions really struck me. I hope that, as a Quaker, I can see and portray people as authentically in my own retellings. Makoto’s acting ensured each character’s integrity in their choices and purpose.
My favorite element of storytelling throughout the production was the skillful scene changes. The set contained several movable walls lined with traditional, thin white paper. Makoto, along with two stagehands dressed entirely in black and wearing black face masks, moved the walls depending on the action of the play. They became a house, jail, the University of Washington. When Gordon was faced with a choice, a choice motivated by a still, small voice, the walls moved inward or outward depending. I very much related to the representation of the set as Gordon’s inner world. I have had my own struggles with the still, small voice, and I felt the movement of the set visually represented my own experiences. Claustrophobic at moments, expansive at others.
Gordon’s is a story to be told and to be celebrated. Likewise, is the work of AFSC. I recommend seeing Hold These Truths if it comes to your area. It’s not very often that Quakers are represented in plays, and Hold These Truths does Quakerism justice.
This piece is a reflection based on a performance at Plays and Players theater in Philadelphia, Pa. Directed by Daniel Student and performed by Makoto Hirano, this production ran from February 12 through March 1, 2015. Directly following the Sunday, February 15 3pm performance, a talkback was held with playwright Jeanne Sakata and AFSC general secretary, Shan Cretin.
- Upcoming performance schedule for Hold These Truths.
- Information on Gordon Hirabayashi’s work with the American Friends Service Committee.
- The playwright, Jeanne Sakata, is also a wonderful resource. She recommends the book A Principle Stand (reviewed in FJ Oct. 2013 Books column) and the documentary A Personal Matter.
- Learn about Plays and Players in Philadelphia, Pa.